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Heritage Protection
Special> Living Legacies> Heritage Protection
UPDATED: March 20, 2011 NO. 12 MARCH 24, 2011
New Charm of an Ancient Art
Su Embroidery has prospered for more than 2,000 years

EXQUISITE WORKS: A visitor appreciates a piece of Su Embroidery at the Chinese Embroidery Art Gallery in Zhenhu, Suzhou (XINHUA)

Suzhou, capital of east China's Jiangsu Province, a city dubbed "Heaven on Earth" and the "Venice of the East," has long been a major producer of silk due to its mild climate and prosperous sericultural industry. Therefore, the embroidery industry is quite advanced there.

Zhenhu, a small town in Suzhou, is called the "Hometown of Chinese Embroidery Art," since almost every family is engaged in embroidery. Along the famous Embroidery Street in Zhenhu, there are more than 400 embroidery workshops and 8,000 women embroidery artisans. With their exquisite skills, they let the world know the beautiful Su Embroidery.

In the past, embroideries made in Zhenhu were mainly daily products, while now they have developed into artworks. Total sales of Zhenhu embroidery have been increasing by 30 percent on average since 1998 and reached 1 billion yuan ($151.5 million) in 2010.

Magic art

Su Embroidery is the general name of embroidery products created in Jiangsu. This embroidery can be traced back 2,600 years. Based on historical records, most embroidery used in the imperial palace were made by Su Embroidery masters.

Su Embroidery was listed among the first group of items on the National Intangible Cultural Heritage List on May 20, 2006. In September 2007, the Chinese Embroidery Art Gallery was officially opened in Suzhou, the biggest professional embroidery exhibition center in China.

The 2011 China International Tourist Clothing and Accessories Contest will be held from April 22-24 in Suzhou. As part of the event, hundreds of embroidery artisans will demonstrate their skills during the event.

Embroidering is a quiet artistic creation process that requires sitting for long periods. Generally speaking, a 30-cm piece of embroidery requires about 15 days. Embroidery artisans must have an artistic sense—much like a painter—and certain qualities such as patience, attentiveness and perseverance.

According to an old saying, embroidery "takes the needle as the pen and paints with the thread." More specifically, embroidery uses colorful threads (of silk, wool or cotton) to create pictures or other designs on textile fabrics (silk or cotton).

Su Embroidery is smooth, even, soft, glossy and delicate. The fine threads create smooth, neat lines, while the color of the threads and fabric makes the embroidery shiny and pretty.

Double-sided Embroidery is one of the unique techniques of Su Embroidery, which is called a "magic art." The works portraying little cats are representatives of this type of embroidery. Artisans divide a hair-thin thread into two, four, 12 or even 48 parts and can hide those thousands or tens of thousands of thread ends perfectly. One can see the playful and lively expression of cats from either the front or the back of the embroidery. As for the little eyes of cats, more than 20 colors of thread are used to bring them to life.

After seeing the cat embroidered by Gu Wenxia, a Su Embroidery master, many people burst out, "It's almost alive!" The eyes of the cat, in particular, are vivid and lifelike no matter from what angle they are viewed.

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